Does Mason Greenwood have a shot?
Background image: Edwin 11, CC BY 2.0
In the season’s early doors, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told reporters that academy product Mason Greenwood, yet to turn 18, was a better natural finisher than Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. In the interim, the youngster hasn’t done anything to prove the boss wrong.
Used primarily as Solskjaer’s first option off the bench, the teenager pumped in eight goals in all competitions. Limited to part-time minutes, he is nonetheless United’s third-most prolific scorer behind full-timers Rashford and Martial. His presence makes the club’s inability to land RB Salzburg sensation Erling Haaland slightly more bearable.
There is no denying Greenwood figures prominently in the Red Devils’ long term plans. Asking if he has a shot isn’t a metaphorical question. Rather, it’s a literal use of the word. Get him the ball inside the box and he will find the goal. The young man knows how to finish but does he possess a shot?
Poaching is all well and good but there is a reason it’s a dying art. Defenders are quicker and nimbler in the modern game. While they occasionally switch off, they are better coached not to ball watch. These days, it’s far more difficult for forwards to find a patch of space to enjoy some alone time. Therefore, the natural finisher must develop other aspects of his game. Little more than a knack for scoring stands out from Greenwood.
For instance, he rarely plays with his back to goal. Any skill at holding the ball is unapparent although he displays a few tricks when out on the touchline. At the Premier League level, no one expects Greenwood to turn a defender in the box in the manner Alexandre Lacazette embarrassed Harry Maguire on New Year’s Day.
Anthony Martial is hardly a master of the art but, as United’s No.9, he is a practitioner of holding the ball. His first touch on long clearances is questionable. Around the box, however, he can lay off to teammates or turn a defender brilliantly.
If Greenwood is the centre-forward in waiting, he must develop that aspect of his game at the highest level. Yes, he is only 18. No one is writing him off but, rather than merely assuming his talent will blossom like a wildflower, United’s coaching staff should and hopefully is cultivating it.
If it feels harsh to question whether that is taking place this early in the process, consider that United fans are much further down the garden path with Jesse Lingard. Also a promising academy graduate, Lingard traded on pace rather than clinical finishing. That pace initially delivered goals, important ones for both the Red Devils and Three Lions. But what came of it? Rather than developing new skills on the pitch, the fun-loving entrepreneur chose to expand his social media profile and personal business ventures. As a result, match commentators remind us with every touch, lost possession, missed shot and substitution that the 26-year-old did not contribute a Premier League goal to Manchester United's cause in 2019’s entirety.
In that light, it seems wiser to take a proactive stance with Greenwood. Encourage him to emulate Marcus Rashford rather than Lingard. Rashford also burst onto the scene at Old Trafford and Wembley with a turn of pace. Thanks to his focus on football, he is no longer a one-dimensional star. He will still stretch defences but can also operate in close quarters, whip in crosses, lay off, work one-twos and shoot from anywhere in the attacking third. Similarly, defenders and goalkeepers never know when Anthony Martial will shoot from distance, pick out a teammate or move on goal himself. Thus far, Greenwood is more predictable and, as the data on him mounts, he will find it more difficult to score against defenders who are all the wiser.
Solskjaer’s tactics encourage interchangeability between the three forwards and the most advanced midfielder—one hesitates to say playmaker but that’s an issue for another day. The point here is that developing an array of shooting options should top the 18-year-old's punch list. If you watch Greenwood's highlight reel, his choices and weighted passing stand out but his shots are likewise weighted. He doesn't mix it up.
When he curled a cross in for Marcus Rashford to head home against Sheffield United, the ball floated on a perfect arc. His first goal against AZ Alkmaar was low, slotted into the near post and even the one from the top of the box was passed into the corner. He weed-whacked the near post a second time on Jordan Pickford in the Everton match but Bernd Leno was ready in the Arsenal tilt. The data mounts.
Again, Rashford and Martial are willing to shoot in any fashion from anywhere. So too is Fred, even though the Brazilian has scored just the once in 47 Manchester United appearances and his most recent set-piece offering, delivered late against the Gunners, took a ridiculously high arc over the goal like a Sunday duffer hacking his way out of a greenside bunker. Obviously, the intent is for Greenwood to be more confident than hopeful from distance. He must believe he can rocket one into the far side-netting rather than always slithering a shot inside the near post.
There is only the one powerful volley in his first-team body of work. The goal against Newcastle offered promise, a pure blast, although no one can say whether Martin Dubravka was caught out by the deflection off Federico Fernandez's quad. Regardless, along with precision, Greenwood needs to add power to his shooting arsenal. Red Devils faithful can feel more optimistic about his development when keepers don't know where he's going and the lad himself is one of the players queueing up for every United free-kick.